Prospects Improve for U.S. Captive Apes

March 14, 2013

Hundreds of United States-based chimpanzees look set to be taken out of research programs and moved into more appropriate care settings, following recommendations made in a recent report by the U.S. government’s principal medical research agency.

Both the 400 to be retired and the 50 still available for approved government-sponsored research must be housed in conditions approximating a natural environment, according to the January 2013 report by the National Institutes of Health.

The natural setting should include social groups of at least seven, access to the outdoors, and the space to forage and build nests. Since no federal research facilities currently meet these standards, major renovations are required if chimpanzees are to be maintained for research.

Many animal protection groups have worked on the U.S. federal chimpanzee research program or captive care in recent years, and were engaged in dialogue with the report’s authors as the new recommendations were developed.

Groups working to secure a safe retirement for the animals include the Humane Society of the United States; Animal Protection of New Mexico; New England Anti-Vivisection Society; Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; Lincoln Park Zoo; Save the Chimps; and members of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, among others.

The report’s goal was to guide implementation of a 2011 recommendation by the Institute of Medicine, the U.S. government’s advisory body on health and science policy, that “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.”

Accreditation Helps Chimps and Sanctuaries

Retiring hundreds of research chimps puts pressure on U.S. sanctuaries to increase capacity while maintaining high standards and ensuring sustainability throughout the lives of residents who can reach 55 years of age.

Highlighting the importance of standards, seven sanctuaries in North America recently sought and received full accreditation by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).

“Accreditation guarantees these chimps a high standard of care,” says Patty Finch, executive director of GFAS, an organization set up to support and strengthen animal protection worldwide. “It means a safeguard on their welfare, which in some cases comes after years of exploitative and sometimes painful experiments.”

The chimpanzees and orangutans living in GFAS-accredited sanctuaries in the U.S. and Canada are protected from commercial activities, breeding, and invasive research. The sanctuaries are also recognized for strong management and governance practices: written policies, protocols, and long-term financial planning.

“Accreditation is really important for us,” says Jennifer Compton, assistant director of the Primate Rescue Center in central Kentucky. “The independent endorsement gives us the highest level of credibility with donors, the media, and the public.”

Among the first to be accredited by GFAS in 2011 was the Center for Great Apes in Florida, a 135-acre sanctuary for 44 rescued chimpanzees and orangutans, each bringing their own story of a life tormented by human ignorance and exploitation. The apes are now housed in social groups in huge domes open to the warm Florida air, able to climb onto frames and through chutes to run through the forest.

Read the Story of One of the Center’s Chimpanzees, Clyde

Other sanctuaries receiving full GFAS accreditation in 2011 included the Primate Rescue Center in Kentucky, Chimp Haven in Louisiana, Chimps, Inc. in Oregon, and Fauna Foundation Quebec in Canada. Chimp Haven is preparing to take in 111 chimpanzees from a Louisiana lab that lost its government contract to conduct chimp research.

Sanctuary Alliance Aims To Raise North American Standards

The North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA), founded in 2010 in the United States, provided a forum for sanctuaries across the region to work together. Getting accredited by GFAS was among the founding members’ first goals.

With the 2012 accreditation of Save the Chimps—a 150-acre Florida sanctuary where 264 chimpanzees, most rescued from lives of pain and isolation in biomedical laboratories, romp on 12 spacious islands—the number of chimpanzees in NAPSA member sanctuaries rose to more than 465.

Food and care for residents, who can live up to 55 years in captivity, costs more than $15,000 per ape, per year in addition tothe expense of enrichment activities such as painting and ball games, snacks hidden in paper bags, and space for swinging, nesting and climbing.

Veterinarian Dr. Jocelyn Bezner stresses that the chimps’ traumatic pasts mean they often need psychological care as well. But at Save the Chimps, says Bezner, “they strut across that island, their hair grows and they do their bluff displays and they just get their dignity back, they get to be chimps.”

As a next step, NAPSA members are developing membership criteria and a code of conduct and aim to welcome more sanctuaries in the region to collaborate, cooperate, and improve.

“Membership in NAPSA and accreditation by GFAS helps the public distinguish true sanctuaries from those engaging in practices such as training for entertainment, breeding, or financial mismanagement, that are inconsistent with sanctuary principles,” says co-chair Jennifer Feuerstein, who is also Sanctuary Director of Save the Chimps.

U.S. Government Considers Raising Protection Level for Chimps

Of the 2,000 chimpanzees in the United States, more than 1,000 still live as pets, in training facilities for the entertainment business, in biomedical laboratories, or in unaccredited facilities such as roadside zoos.

While gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, gibbons, and wild chimpanzees are listed as “endangered” under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, captive chimpanzees are only considered “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The United States is the only country in the world that categorizes chimpanzees into wild and captive, with captive chimps receiving a less restrictive level of federal protection that allows them to be kept for commercial purposes.

In 2011, eight animal welfare and wildlife conservation groups signed a joint petition for reclassification of all U.S. chimps as “endangered.” In response to the petition, the FWS agreed to review chimpanzees’ status and consider raising it from “threatened” to “endangered.”

The official review began in September 2011; no decision had been issued by early 2013.

For More Information on Captive Apes in the United States:

Great Apes and the Law (Michigan State University College of Law)


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